Stanford Professor Reflects on a Photo Studio’s Contribution to Chinatown History

Stanford professor Marci Kwon delivering her lecture at the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center on Nov. 30. (Photo credit: Thu Nguyen)

By Surabhi Balachander

At the beginning of her lecture “The Evasive Bodies of May’s Photo Studio: Images from Chinatown,” Marci Kwon meditated on the fragility of history and the good fortune by which prints and backdrops from a popular Chinatown photo studio have remained accessible – after collectors such as Wylie Wong and George Berticevich rescued them from dumpsters and flea markets. Without them, Kwon said, “May's would be little more than a footnote in the history of San Francisco's Chinatown, if even that.”

At the Center’s ArtsWest lecture on November 30, Kwon spoke to a capacity audience of 150 guests that included the collectors Wong and Berticevich, relatives of the original May’s Photo Studio owners, and many others with personal and familial ties to the studio. Operated by Isabelle May Lee and Leo Chan Lee from 1923 to 1976, May’s Photo Studio created photos that, as Kwon puts it, “do not simply document life [in San Francisco Chinatown], but transform it.”

Watch the lecture on Video


Kwon, who is Assistant Professor of Art History at Stanford, specializes in American art and teaches a popular undergraduate course on Asian American Art. She spoke of May’s Studio’s involvement in and importance to the San Francisco Chinatown community. According to Kwon, their access to intimate community spaces and willingness to shoot in outdoor collections set them apart from non-Chinese photographers of the same era. May’s Photo Studio, thanks to the owners’ social and familial connections, was able to take complex and kind portraits of Chinatown’s citizens and actors.

Connection to Cantonese Opera

Kwon also noted May’s Studio’s relationship with Cantonese opera. May’s Photo Studio photographed elaborate backdrops and costumes that were featured in productions at the Great China Theater on Jackson Street. The photographs were printed in handbills and on posters, and served to promote the opera locally. In her remarks, Kwon emphasized Cantonese opera’s significance as a cultural medium connecting Chinese Americans with the Chinese diaspora. Opera troupes from China would tour in the United States, meaning that the same actors appeared both in China and abroad. Additionally, Chinese businessmen from San Francisco successfully petitioned the United States government to allow these performers an exemption from the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Active from 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act, driven by the fear that Chinese laborers stole work from white Americans, banned Chinese immigration to the United States. Since Cantonese opera was aimed at a Chinese audience, its actors posed little competition to white workers, and were permitted to spend up to six months in the United States against a bond of $1,000. Kwon theorized that as a result of this exemption, the bodies of Cantonese opera stars can be seen as “temporary, liminal, easily able to transgress the borders of the United States – if only for a moment.”

Exclusion Act Cast a Shadow on May Studio’s Portraits

A collaged portrait that reunited a separated couple. (Credit: Stanford Special Collections)

The Chinese Exclusion Act impacted the work of May’s Photo Studio in other ways. Kwon gestured to Leo Chan Lee’s immigration story as an early example of photography’s power. Lee was able to immigrate in 1911 as a “paper son,” using photographs to support forged documentation that he was a relative of a United States resident. As Kwon put it, “bodies turned to paper to evade borders.”

Perhaps the most poetic example of May’s photos that Kwon shared were their collaged portraits. Showing a photo of a husband and wife in front of a painted backdrop, Kwon pointed out that – despite the apparent physical proximity of the couple in the photo – the wife, unlike the husband, casts no shadow. This, along with the sharper borders outlining her body, illustrates that she never posed for the portrait. Rather, Leo Chan Lee employed a process of “positive-negative-positive.” By converting a photographic print into a negative, Lee was able to combine negatives to, in Kwon’s words, “reunite families” who had been separated – depicting “a fantasy of togetherness and wholeness, a fantasy pictured before it could be achieved.” As Kwon demonstrated in her lecture, May’s Photo Studio documented San Francisco’s Chinatown at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and created powerful, transformative images for their community.

Accompanying Exhibition

The pop-up exhibition. (Credit: Thu Nguyen)

Kwon’s lecture, which was co-sponsored by Stanford’s American Studies Program, was accompanied by a pop-up exhibition, “Lost Opera: Treasures from May’s Chinatown Studio.” Curated by Yinshi Lerman-Tan, PhD Candidate in Art History, this exhibition featured 1920s photographs from the Wylie Wong Collection of May’s Studio Photographs at Stanford Special Collections as well as original May’s photo equipment on loan from Ted Jew, a Palo Alto resident and a relative of the Lees.


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